Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1970.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
When this street was first laid out by the fourth Earl of Bedford in the 1630's it was closed at its southern end a few yards north of the present junction with Exeter Street and Aldwych by the wall of Exeter House garden and the back premises of the White Hart Inn in the Strand. Until the nineteenth century it was named Brydges Street, after the family of the fourth Earl's wife. In 1657 ground south of the street was bought from the fifth Earl by the tenant of the White Hart, (fn. 2) and new or improved access provided to the Strand from Brydges Street via the inn yard. (fn. 3) In 1673 a new street was made by the Commissioners for Highways and Sewers across the site of the White Hart, joining Brydges Street to the Strand. This new street was called Catherine Street after the Queen (see page 35). Almost all of it lay outside the parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden. In 1872 the name Catherine supplanted Brydges over the whole line of street. In 1899–1905 the making of Aldwych curtailed this street at its southern end, restoring it to approximately the limits of the original Brydges Street. At the same period York (now part of Tavistock) Street, which had from the beginning opened into Brydges Street from the west, was extended across Catherine Street to Drury Lane on the east. This part of Tavistock Street lay almost entirely outside the parish of St. Paul and is not described in this volume: the Strand Theatre is also excluded.
Brydges Street filled up with its first inhabitants in the years 1632–40. The building leases on the west side, running from 1631 or 1632, are tabulated on pages 296–7. The street was made immediately west of the wall built by the third Earl in c. 1610, which was demolished to allow the construction of its east side. On this side about half the ground was granted away in fee farm by the fourth and fifth Earls of Bedford in 1635–6 and 1657–8. (fn. 4) All of the west side (together with both sides of York Street) was settled on Edward Russell in 1640–1 and sold by him to John Athy by c. 1671 (probably in 1663).
Possibly the street was not altogether satisfactorily built, at least on the west side. In 1635 a 'gentleman' briefly resident in one of the houses there, which had been built under the auspices of the partners John Ward and Richard Harris, brought a complaint in Chancery against them. He sought a reduction in rent because 'yt raynes into every roome of ye said house and he bee much annoyed with currents and floods of water which in tyme of wett wether dooth issue out of the yard of one other tenement of theires next adioyning'. (fn. 5) A rather similar complaint made fifteen years later by John Donne's son, Doctor John Donne the younger, suggests that the termination of Brydges Street at its southern end left the intended drainage system imperfect. He was living in a house where the Duchess Theatre now stands. His complaint, made against Edward Russell as freeholder and against the owner of the leasehold interest, was that no effective sewer had been made to carry off southward the drainage brought down to his house from those above. This made it 'very offensive and noysome to him, all sorts of his neighbors fowle water resting upon his howse and decaying the foundations of the same'. (fn. 6)
One or two people of title occur in the early years as residents on the east side but they were not numerous and the social character of the street was probably harmed by the taverns for which it became noted, and the Theatre Royal which had an entrance from the street from 1663.
Two of the three taverns marked on Lacy's map of 1673 (Plate 3), the Fleece and the Rose, dated from the first building of the street. In 1632 the Fleece, on the south corner of York Street (now the site of No. 42 Tavistock Street), was already in the hands of a vintner, Thomas Gough, (fn. 7) but he was one of the Covent Garden vintners or victuallers to be put out of business by the Privy Council in 1633–4, and was succeeded in occupation of the premises by William Clifton, who after being in a similar predicament had emerged as one of the two permitted vintners in Covent Garden. (fn. 8) Clifton's previous tavern in Russell Street, the Goat, does not seem to have been a very staid place, and although he subsequently figures in chapelry matters in respectable guise the Fleece itself was to become notorious for the murders committed there. (fn. 9) It was burnt down in 1688 and rebuilt as a private house. (fn. 10)
One of Clifton's rivals ran the Rose tavern from 1633, at the north-east end of Brydges Street on the corner with Russell Street. He was William Long, against whom Clifton was complaining in 1634. The Privy Council ordered his tavern to be suppressed in 1635 but in the following year he was still trading, and the ratebooks make it evident that he remained continuously in occupation of the property. (fn. 11) The ratebooks do not make it clear where the entrance was, indeed Long himself confessed at that time that he could not 'in the precise forme of a Mathematticall Descripsion sett foorth the site or scituation of the said Messuage hee … haveinge noe Skill therein', (fn. 12) but there is no doubt that the tavern was on the corner. The premises enjoyed a long and well-patronized existence, as tavern or coffee house, until at least the reconstruction of the Theatre Royal in 1775–6, (fn. 13) and perhaps until their demolition for the theatre's rebuilding in 1791. (fn. 1)
A third tavern shown on Lacy's map was the Windmill. In 1681 this was taken on lease by Stephen Lupton, who renamed it the Duke of York's Head, and subsequently (or so it was said) 'brought the said Tavern into disgrace and disrepute by reason of notorious and disorderly persons frequenting and entertained there'. (fn. 14) True or false this complaint seems to reflect the social character of the street by that period. In c. 1707–12 a Captain William Bradbury kept a gaming house at the north&-west corner. (fn. 15)
The proximity of the Theatre Royal affected the street socially but until the reconstruction of the theatre in 1775–6 it had no frontage of its own directly on the street. From 1791 to 1811 there was a derelict open space between the theatre and the street, but thereafter the theatre has again fronted on the street, and dominated it visually.
In 1787 four of the ten disorderly taverns or coffee houses found in the parish were in this street and in 1794 three were prosecuted as 'common Nuisances'. (fn. 16) The renewed concern with public decency that is expressed in the parish committee minutes in the 1840's found Brydges Street much as before: in 1847 inhabitants in that street and York Street complained that the behaviour of prostitutes drove away trade and prevented the letting of apartments to respectable people. (fn. 17) By this time another nuisance was the smoke drifting eastward from Bielefeld's papiermâché works in Wellington Street. (fn. 18) In the 1850's the Post Office directories show the street mainly in the occupation of a miscellany of small tradesmen and artisans.
Apart from the Theatre Royal, nothing in the present street is significantly earlier than the late nineteenth century, although the plain building at No. 27 may have vestiges of an eighteenthcentury house behind its stucco front. On the east side of the street the eleventh Duke of Bedford made great changes in 1899–1905, when the eastern part of York Street (now part of Tavistock Street) was laid out, the Catherine Street frontage set back a few feet, and most of the old courts lying between Catherine Street and Drury Lane swept away (see page 48). But on the west side, where the land had long ceased to belong to the Bedford estate, the old house-sites still survive north of Tavistock Street. South of that street most of the old sites have been covered by the Duchess Theatre.
When the Duchess was opened in 1929 The Era commented that the name of Catherine Street was too little known to be a good address for a new theatre. (fn. 19) It is still much less well known than it would be if the Theatre Royal took its common designation from the street on which it fronts.
Ratepaying occupants of Catherine Street include: Captain Bayley, 1635–6; Richard Delamaine, 1637–9, mathematician; Sir Thomas Walsingham, 1637–8, member of the Long Parliament; Dr. John Donne, 1639–62, miscellaneous writer, son of Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's; Dr. Hinsloe (Hinchloe), 1639–c. 1645; Lady Norton, 1639–c. 1647; Captain Daniel Goodricke, 1644; Dr. Hopton, 1644; Lady Spencer, 1647; Lady St. John, 1651; Dr. 'Lodowick' (or John) Wembs, 1652–5; 'The Lord Howard', 1659–60, ? Edward Howard, first Baron Howard of Escrick, member of the Long Parliament; Mountjoy Blount, Earl of Newport, 1661–4; Dr. Torlesse, 1667–8; William Wintershall, 1670, actor; Colonel Mouldsworth, 1676–8; Sir John Franklin, 1679–91; John Bancroft, 1680–5, dramatist; John Freeman, 1694, ? painter; Captain William Bradbury, 1707–12; Captain Bernard, 1718; Captain Bryan, 1719; John Mills, 1720–6, actor; Benjamin Victor, 1721–4, theatrical manager and writer; John Harper, 1732–4, 1737–41, actor; Samuel Johnson, 1735–6, ? dancing master and dramatist; Charles Fleetwood, 1738–43, coproprietor of Drury Lane Theatre; John Cooke, 1759–74, ? bookseller; 'James Jos. Sowerby', 1787–9, ? James Sowerby, naturalist and artist; Robert Bissett Scott, 1799–1800, ? military writer; Joseph Zaehnsdorf, 1855–86, bookbinder.
The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
Nos. 2–6 (even) Catherine Street
The Builder magazine had had its office at the centre site, No. 4 (previously numbered 46 and before that No. 25 Brydges Street), since its removal from No. 1 York Street (now No. 42 Tavistock Street) in 1874. The architects of the 1874 building were Habershon and Brock. (fn. 20) In 1899–1900 York Street was extended eastward to Drury Lane some 18 feet southward of The Builder office, to form what is now the easternmost part of Tavistock Street, and the east side of Catherine Street was set back a few feet. The buildings on both sides of The Builder office were demolished, (fn. 21) and it was necessary to provide the office with a frontage on the new building-line.
Statham's elevational design was approved by the Bedford Office in April 1902, (fn. 22) and the completed front (which bears the date 1902) was described by him in The Builder in November. 'An entirely stone front was too costly, so that I had to endeavour to get a certain degree of effect with a front largely constructed in plain brick. The bricks are Bracknell red, of medium colour; the stone, selected white Portland. The front doors and woodwork of the ground storey are in wainscot oak; it was intended to use English oak, but it is curious to record that it was impossible in all London to get English oak, at the moment, in sizes sufficient for the purpose; and as the work had to be carried out by a certain date, the English oak had to be abandoned, though some fairly fine wood was obtained in lieu of it. The attempt has been made to give some originality of character to the stone details … The profile of the main cornice, of slight projection in comparison with its depth, was dictated by the desire to have a fairly rich cornice, but to keep its return within the centre line of the party-wall, so that it should not be interfered with by any adjacent building.' (fn. 23)
Colls and Sons were the general contractors, the stone-carving was executed by Messrs. Daymond, and the 'gun-metal lettering on the front, and the letter-box front and other bits of decorative metal work' (now removed) by George Wragge. The entrance-doors, forming 'rather a fine piece of joiner's work', were illustrated. 'The whole of the details of every kind were made from the architect's full-size drawings.' (fn. 23)
Statham's front was a self-contained unit. He stated, however, that after its erection the Bedford Office decided that the buildings on either side should be designed by him, at least in respect of their elevations. (fn. 24) The Bedford Office agreed in January 1904 to grant a building lease of No. 2, the corner site, to Messrs. Trollope and Messrs. Colls, builders, and in January 1905 of No. 6 to W. B. Howard, builder. (fn. 25) The latter front bears the date 1905.
At No. 2 Statham provided plans and elevations, at No. 6 an elevation only. At both, some departures were made from his designs, and the illustrations which he published, with his comments, in The Builder in May 1906 (No. 2) and June 1907 (No. 6) show his designs as intended, not as built. (fn. 26)
In regard to No. 2, Statham dwelt on his utilization of the decreased wall-thickness above first-floor level, permitted by the Building Acts, to make an external feature of the chimney stacks on the York (Tavistock) Street elevation.
On each of the three buildings Statham intended the crowning balls and finials to be gilded. He regretted the substitution at Nos. 2 and 6 of 'the usual style of shop-front woodwork' for his inter-related designs.
The Builder magazine (now Building) still occupies No. 4 and the Building Group also occupies No. 2, acquired in 1945. The ground floor of No. 2 was destroyed by bombing in the 1939–45 war. (fn. 27)
The tall and relatively narrow front of No. 4 contains four storeys, the first having a shop front of three bays set in a wide elliptically headed arch of stone, its moulded arris broken only by a small keystone. Flanking the arch are vertically moulded pilasters which rise from rusticated pedestals to support a cornice of cymaprofile, reeded top and bottom, and underlined between the pilasters by guttae. The second and third storeys alike contain a slightly projecting bay window, divided by moulded stone mullions and a transom into two tiers of three lights, all furnished with leaded casements. The stone apron between the two windows is plain below a band of billet ornament, but above the middle light is a carved cartouche bearing a cypher composed of the date 1902. There are three small windows in the fourth storey, above a moulded sill-band and an apron-panel of brick and stone chequers. The windows, which have flat arches of gauged brick and tall narrow keystones, are set in a face of brick banded with stone. Paired pilaster-strips, of plain brickwork in the second and third storeys and stone-banded brick above, flank the front and rise to support an entablature of highly individual design. The stone architrave is broken by the keystones of the fourth-storey windows, the frieze is divided into vertical panels by projecting ribs, and the cornice has a high ovolo moulding, carved with formalized foliage, below a dentil course. The front is effectively finished with a curved and stepped gable, rising between paired dwarf pedestals finished with stone balls. The gable face is decorated in the lower concave-sided part with stone bands, and in the semi-circular pediment with brick and stone chequers. The coping rises to finish in a pair of volutes, linked by a garland below the baluster-like finial.
The Catherine Street front of No. 2 is generally similar in width, composition and details to that of No. 4. Again, there is an oak-framed shop front recessed within an elliptically arched opening, the flanking piers being basically similar to those at No. 4 except that their profiled shafts are banded with flat courses. The second, third and fourth storeys each have a stone mullioned-andtransomed window, with two tiers of three lights, uniting to form a shallow canted bay which is flanked by plain brick margins and broad projecting piers of brick, banded with stone through two storeys and chequered with stone above. The frieze of recessed brick panels is repeated below a stone cornice of simpler form than that at No. 4. The fifth storey, containing two windows below a wide band of chequerwork, rises into a semicircular gable, divided and flanked by narrow buttresses, the middle one rising to support a twisted baluster finial. The paired buttresses on either side of the gable are finished with plain blocks and balls of stone.
The three large shop windows in the return front to Tavistock Street are a departure from Statham's original design, where he proposed having a plain brick face with three small roundarched openings. This was to form a substantial base for the three wide buttress-like stacks dividing the upper face into narrow bays. The stone bands and chequers of the Catherine Street front are repeated in the bays, and the stacks are linked by the downward semi-circular sweeps of the parapet.
No. 6 has a front of three bays, wide between narrow. The elliptically headed arch framing the shop front is here flanked by two roundarched doorways, each set in a plain face below a segmental pediment. Above the ground storey, the wide middle bay is treated as a lofty roundarched recess, embracing the canted bay containing the second- and third-storey windows, each divided by stone mullions and a transom into two tiers of four lights. The head of the arch, formed of brick and stone voussoirs, frames the lunette window of the fourth storey. In the narrow side bays the windows all have segmental arches of brick with triple keystones. The entablature, with its vertically ribbed frieze of brick panels, is another variant of that at No. 4, and the fifth storey is finished with a parapet profiled with four concave-curving sweeps like those of the Tavistock Street frontage of No. 2.
This theatre was built in 1928–9 by F. G. Minter Limited to the design of the architect Ewen Barr. (fn. 28) His client was Arthur Gibbons (fn. 29) but the lessees of the site are described as the West End and Country Theatres Limited. (fn. 30) The ground rent was £1,500 per annum. (fn. 31) The site had stood vacant for some years, in the ownership of Willy Clarkson, the theatrical costumier, as the problem of ancient lights had hitherto frustrated schemes for the erection of a theatre here. A solution was found by constructing a deep basement containing the stalls, which extended beneath the entrance hall and foyer (fig. 31). These last were contrived within the void space beneath the steppings of the dress circle, which was contracted to less than the full width of the site. In consequence The Era was able to report that 'there are fewer steps to the seats than in any theatre in London'. As built the seating capacity was 492, distributed between stalls (314), dress circle (158) and four boxes (20). The same journal calculated that 'the house will hold about £200 a performance'. (fn. 32)
The exterior, faced with Portland stone, is vaguely Elizabethan in style, with a series of canted bay windows in the upper storeys. The interior decorative scheme, originally in mauve, blue and silver, illuminated by concealed lights, was the work of Marc-Henri and Laverdet, but about 1935 a warmer colour-scheme of 'rust and old gold' was introduced. (fn. 31) The standing figures at circle-level were carved by Arnold Auerbach, (fn. 33) and the bas-reliefs between the proscenium and auditorium by Maurice Lambert. (fn. 31)
The theatre opened on 25 November 1929 with a performance of Tunnel Trench, a war-play by Hubert Griffith: the leading role was taken by Brian Aherne, and Emlyn Williams appeared as a minor character. (fn. 34) A successful production in November 1933 was Laburnum Grove by J. B. Priestley, who in the following year became associated with the management of the theatre: other plays by the same author were subsequently staged here. (fn. 35)
No. 23 Catherine Street: The Opera Tavern
This public house was built (together with No. 21) in 1879 to the design of the architect George Treacher, most of whose work lay in this field. (fn. 36) The narrow front is a design of extremely eclectic character, the wilful distortions of standard Italianate and neo-classical motifs made even more striking by the present application of bold colour. The ground storey, bounded by partly rusticated piers, is divided into three bays by slender castiron columns, supporting an orthodox Corinthian entablature that extends between the pedimented consoles above the piers. The upper face of three storeys is faced with brick but elaborately dressed with stucco. Each storey has a three-light window, the first dressed with a 'Greek Doric' order and finished, above the middle light, with a triangular pediment. The second window is appropriately dressed with an Ionic order and has a segmental pediment, while the third window, its lights divided by Corinthian columns, is flanked by tall fluted consoles supporting projections of the crowning cornice. The parapet rises in the form of a segmental pediment above the window, framing a small tympanum modelled with a garlanded lyre. The frieze and cornice of each window is extended, in a different form, across the brick face on either side, to meet the tall Ionic pilasters, their shafts cinctured and partly fluted, and the short rusticated piers above, which terminate the front laterally.